Shaping the Internet's Future

The Global Internet Report: Consolidation in the Internet Economy

The 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future focused attention on the significant potential of the Internet for innovation and sustainable development, but without denying or shirking the challenges it also introduces. This forward-looking analysis is a powerful advocacy tool for anyone who wants to protect and build the open Internet.

Over the past year, we spent time working with our community on a new report. It takes a closer look at one of those forces and how it may impact the future: Consolidation in the Internet Economy. Understood as growing forces of concentration, vertical and horizontal integration, and fewer opportunities for market entry and competition, this topic includes the impact of consolidating forces on all stakeholders as well as on the Internet’s underlying and evolving technology.

We chose this theme because findings from the 2017 report, and what’s happened since, are showing increasing concerns about a growing concentration of power in the Internet economy. They point to market and technical forces that may be driving consolidation at different “layers” of the Internet, from network developments and hosting services to applications. Among these trends are processes that enable some companies to own our experience at almost every stage.

Such trends of consolidation are not new and can be expected as markets and industries mature. To some, it is an evolution foremost characterized by lower prices and better services. But consolidation also implies a greater influence by a few, raising concerns of a more centralized Internet that could impede its resilience, openness, and diversity.

When we started this project, our ambition was to provide clear answers and recommendations. Instead, it raised an even longer set of questions.

This report marks the start of a new conversation. One where we need your help. In 2019 we will be conducting a deeper dive into the topic of consolidation. There will be new research through a collaboration with Chatham House. This will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Cyber Policy. We will also offer to fund for the collection of relevant data, to be made available for further research. And, of course, we will continue our conversations with you on our website, over social media, and more.

Read the 2019 Global Internet Report: Consolidation in the Internet Economy

Learn more about the Call for Papers for the special issue on consolidation.

Applications for research funding for data collection will open 1 March and be available here.

If you have comments, questions or suggestions to the team that has worked on the report, please email

Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Alissa Cooper on the Technical Impact of Internet Consolidation

In 2017, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. While preparing to launch the 2019 Global Internet Report, we interviewed Alissa Cooper to hear her perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Alissa Cooper is a Fellow at Cisco Systems. She has been serving as the Chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) since 2017. Previously, she served three years as an IETF Applications and Real-Time (ART) area director and three years on the Internet Architecture Board (IAB). She also served as the chair of the IANA Stewardship Coordination Group (ICG). At Cisco, Cooper was responsible for driving privacy and policy strategy within the company’s portfolio of real-time collaboration products before being appointed as IETF Chair. Prior to joining Cisco, Cooper served as the Chief Computer Scientist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, where she was a leading public interest advocate and technologist on issues related to privacy, net neutrality, and technical standards. Cooper holds a PhD from the Oxford Internet Institute and MS and BS degrees in computer science from Stanford University.

The responses below are Cooper’s personal views and do not represent the views of the IETF.

The Internet Society: This year we’re focusing our Global Internet Report report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating consolidation trends in the access, services, and application layers of the Internet respectively, as well as consolidation trends acting vertically across layers (e.g., companies gaining dominance in more than one of the Internet’s layers). Have you noticed a trend in this regard?

Alissa Cooper: Yes, although I think it would be useful to develop more quantitative measures to demonstrate the trend over time.

If yes, how does this the trend impact the IETF?

Standards development always has a strong and multifaceted relationship to market dynamics. From a technical perspective, trends toward consolidation have caused engineers in the IETF to consider the implications of their technical designs. If we design standardized communication protocols in certain ways, such protocols may be more likely to support distributed or decentralized infrastructure or services. Conversely, there are design choices we can make that could reinforce consolidation or the offering of certain services from a smaller and smaller number of large companies. This question about whether the building blocks that we design in the IETF are reinforcing the consolidation trend has come into sharper focus in recent times.

The consolidation trend also has the potential to affect who participates in the IETF and how those in the industry view the value of standardization. Larger, more prosperous companies tend to have a greater ability to support standardization work, which is often paid for out of R&D or innovation budgets. As the mix of companies that provide Internet infrastructure and services changes, the composition of IETF participants tends to change as well. That mix can also affect corporate standardization strategy. More dominant players might standardize if they perceive that it reinforces their own technology – or they might chose not to, if they perceive that it is unnecessary given their dominant position.

Could you tell us more about Hypertext Transfer Protocol Version 3 (HTTP/3) as an example of how digital dominance, or scale, can drive standard development?

HTTP/3 is a work-in-progress aiming to define how HTTP traffic will be carried over a new transport protocol, QUIC, which is also in development. Historically, there have been two main transport protocols that have seen wide deployment on the open Internet: the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Many other transport protocols have been designed and standardized over the decades, but few have seen wide deployment. Some of the reasons for this include the existence of equipment in the middle of the network that filters transport protocols it does not recognize, and the difficulty of getting support for new transport protocols into the many different operating systems running on Internet-connected devices today.

QUIC is designed specifically to overcome these barriers. QUIC traffic, including the metadata that identifies the protocol, is always encrypted, so networking equipment cannot filter it based on the metadata or the traffic content. And QUIC is built on top of UDP, so it does not require operating system modifications in order to be deployed. Thus QUIC and HTTP/3 are instructive if we look at what it takes to get a protocol deployed at scale on today’s Internet, which is truly a heterogenous network of networks.

QUIC began as an experiment at Google before it was brought to the IETF for standardization, and Google has a large deployment of its own, pre-IETF version of QUIC. I think the fact that a company with such a large footprint on the web – both from the browser/mobile device side and the server side – was interested in standardizing this definitely caused others to become more interested in participating in the effort. But this is certainly not a case where a single large company has dominated the standards process; in fact we have seen quite the opposite, with participation from dozens of organizations and individuals as well as major improvements to the IETF version of the protocol that are incompatible with Google’s existing deployed version.

Do you consider this a positive or negative example of digital dominance? If successful, could it allow a dominant browser provider to gain significant market power (as argued here)?

If QUIC and HTTP/3 deliver on their design goals – improving performance and security – then my expectation would be that all browsers and web servers that choose to implement them will reap those benefits. I think in general wider use of encryption at the transport and application layers is a positive development because it helps to protect end users’ data in transit to the sites and services to which that data was destined anyway. It creates an impetus to re-think how certain network management and measurement functions that previously required access to unencrypted data can work. This may require some re-engineering, but my hope is that it will not detract from the overall positive impacts of transport protocol evolution.

An IETF working document (or Internet-Draft), Considerations on Internet Consolidation and the Internet Architecture, was recently published. Can you tell us more of what’s being investigated and proposed?

The Internet Architecture Board (IAB) provides long-range technical direction for the Internet’s development. This draft document arose out of conversations that the IAB has had concerning consolidation on the Internet. We have tried to tease out the technical and economic factors that may be contributing to consolidation. This includes looking at the underlying security and privacy properties of networks and services and the evolution of content delivery. The draft currently poses questions and does not provide many answers. The IAB is continuing to discuss how we can learn more about why expectations for decentralized protocol deployment are or are not coming to fruition in practice.

Much of the public debate seems to focus on consolidation from predominantly a perspective of negative implications. Can you think of any positive aspects of consolidation?

Sure. In some cases larger entities can have faster, broader, positive impacts on end users. Today, if one or a small handful of the largest web properties, content delivery networks, or email service providers chooses to deploy a new security technology or implement a performance-enhancing feature, those improvements can benefit millions or billions of users on short order. Furthermore, the ability of larger entities to collect more data about what is happening on the network can help improve the quality of the services they provide, for example by enhancing their ability to identify denial-of-service attacks or spam.

Is competition law the only solution to consolidation problems? If “code is law,” how can the technical community help prevent the potentially negative consequences of consolidation trends?

There are people in the technical community who are trying to identify the relationships between technical design choices and consolidation, but many of the drivers for the consolidation we are witnessing are based in business and economics, not purely in technology. I always found Lessig’s articulation of how technical, economic, social, and legal influences reinforce one another to be a more compelling framework for understanding the shape of the environment in which technology exists than the more simplistic “code is law” tag line. Specifically when it comes to dominance and market power, competition law is likely the most powerful tool available, and one whose application could yield both immediate and longer term effects unlike any that may be achievable merely by shifting the design of the sorts of technical building blocks that we specify in the IETF.

Is there hope, from a technical perspective, in data portability as a way of addressing consolidation concerns?

The main barriers to data portability are not technical ones. We have a multiplicity of ways to port data of all kinds between services in a standardized fashion, if the incentive or regulatory requirements to do so were in place.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet?

My biggest fear is that as the Internet gets more deeply ingrained into society, that it will be increasingly blamed for society’s ills. I believe in tackling problems at their source. At times that means deploying a technological solution or regulating how technology is used, but at other times it means regulating behavior or inspiring behavioral change.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

The Internet has a long history of serving as an open, global platform for communication and human connection. My hope is that even as market dynamics shift, technology evolves, and geopolitics change, the fundamental properties that have made the Internet the most successful communications medium in human history will remain solid and flourish.

We’re getting ready to launch the 2019 Global Internet Report. Read the concept note.


Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Chris Yiu of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

In 2017, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. While preparing to launch the 2019 Global Internet Report, we interviewed Chris Yiu to hear his perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Chris Yiu is a senior policy fellow for technology in the Renewing the Centre team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. His work focuses on how new technologies can be used to enhance the functioning of liberal democracy, and on policy solutions to the new economic challenges of automation and the digital economy. Chris was previously a general manager at Uber and has held senior roles in a number of public, private, and third-sector organizations. He recently authored the report, “A New Deal for Big Tech: Next-Generation Regulation Fit for the Internet Age (Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 2018).

The Internet Society: In your report you write that this “new deal for big tech” is urgent for protecting democratic values globally. Why?

Chris Yiu: Political leaders face an external environment characterised by disruption and rapid change, which people of all backgrounds are struggling to make sense of. Looking at the rise of populism across the West, what started as a closed-minded turn against globalisation is now being compounded by a backward-looking turn against progress. Technology has stripped traditional gatekeepers of their power, delivered real progress for consumers and businesses, and increased many freedoms. But it has also brought significant economic upheaval and heightened cultural pressures, along with huge unknowns about the future. Most importantly, technology has concentrated power in the hands of a relatively small number of companies that all too often wield it clumsily and without sufficient legitimacy.

In your report you also argue that regulation for legacy industries aren’t relevant for the pace and scale of the Internet, and that a new approach for regulating technology companies is needed. Why?

The Internet has fundamentally changed the operating environment for both companies and regulators, with very different cost structures giving rise to new incentives and business models. Across the board, technology-based challengers have not so much out-competed incumbent firms as made them obsolete. The same is true of old approaches to regulation: detailed rules and permissions worked well when markets were finite and relatively stable, but the Internet is characterised by effectively infinite scalability and rapid change. And of course we can no longer view it as a special case that can be dealt with by a few careful carve-outs and exemptions, because in today’s environment it has a bearing on every aspect of our economy and society. A fresh approach, based on stronger accountability coupled with more freedom to innovate, is the best way to align private incentives with the public interest.

You’ve written about competition law’s limitations, as have other popular media like The Economist recently. What is the role of data and consumer protection in your proposed new approach?

Stronger controls on things like data protection and privacy are necessary but not sufficient for consumers to make better decisions or competition to work effectively. In the report we talk about ensuring users have a meaningful understanding of what they are signing up to. This is different to impenetrable terms and conditions or being able to download your data file – when convenience supersedes most other considerations, people need an easy way to assess whether they are happy with the basic relationship they have with a service. More broadly, when we think about competition policy it’s important to remember that Internet-era cost structures and business models tend to result in firms getting large because they are doing something consumers want. So a long view of protecting consumers should not be overly concerned with scale per se, and instead place more weight on ensuring new challengers can get established.

You have suggested that a new regulator is needed to promote tech company responsibility, increase consumers’ digital literacy, and “rewrite obsolete rules for the Internet age.” Are existing regulators not up to the task of doing these things?

There are a couple of aspects to this. First, the core capabilities of many traditional regulators are not necessarily those required to exercise effective oversight of new, technology-based business models and markets. To be able to match the power of large tech companies, regulators need to be expert and fluent in the same fundamentals of Internet-scale operations, speed, data, and innovation. Large tech companies recruit different for different sorts of skills and mindsets compared to incumbent firms; we know that making this pivot is hard for traditional organisations and there is no reason to think that the regulators that mirror them are any different.

Second, the Internet is shaping the operating environment for all industries, and the impact of fundamental shifts in things like cost structures and business models is being felt across the economy. So when it comes to public policy, there is more commonality in the systemic issues arising from big tech firms across different sectors than there is between individual firms and the narrow markets they have disrupted. This puts a premium on a new generation of regulator anchored on the Internet rather than traditional sectors or industries.

Is there hope in data portability as a way of countering data effects and addressing consolidation concerns?

Data portability is an important principle, but I don’t think we can expect this alone to be enough to solve the biggest policy challenges. For one thing, as services achieve scale and differentiate from one another, it’s not always clear what portability would mean in practice (it’s easy to imagine porting your profile info and avatar from one service to another, but content far less so, let alone data observed or inferred about you). And of course some of the data that would have the greatest impact on competition – i.e., a user’s social graph – is explicitly off limits under regulation like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Given the propensity of large firms to try to use their scale to consolidate their power, stronger checks on acquisitions of potentially competitive startups may be a better lever.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet?

That in the face of unrelenting external pressure, our political leaders and policymakers will get stuck trying to fight the Internet rather than accepting it and figuring out how to maximise its opportunities and mitigate its challenges. This could manifest in many ways, from a fracturing of the global commons into closed regional blocs, through to overbearing or poorly designed policy responses that do major collateral damage or inadvertently favour large incumbents over smaller competitors. In particular Europe and North America have much in common in terms of shared values; a renewed period of transatlantic cooperation on technology is of the utmost importance, but without strong political leadership it may be easier to turn inward than work together.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

We can’t uninvent the Internet – and even if we could, we wouldn’t want to. Despite all of the challenges – both economic and cultural – that we are grappling with, the Internet itself and the big tech companies that shape so much of daily lives are the product of a benign operating environment anchored on liberal democracy. And so I am optimistic that we can move past the techlash and leverage technology as a source of optimism about the future. A structured dialogue between those changing the world with new technologies, and those seeking to respond with policy and regulation, can still get us to a place where the benefits of technology are widely shared.

Read “Splintering the Internet: The Unintended Consequence of Regulation.”

Economy Internet Governance Privacy Public Policy Reports Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Orla Lynskey on Data in the Age of Consolidation

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Orla Lynskey to hear her perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Orla Lynskey is an associate professor of law at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her primary area of research interest is European Union data protection law. Her monograph, The Foundations of EU Data Protection Law (Oxford University Press, 2015), explores the potential and limits of individual control over personal data, or “informational self-determination’” in the data protection framework. More recently, her work has focused on collective approaches to data protection rights and mechanisms to counterbalance asymmetries of power in the online environment. Lynskey is an editor of International Data Privacy Law and the Modern Law Review and is a member of the EU Commission’s multistakeholder expert group on GDPR. She holds an LLB from Trinity College, Dublin, an LLM from the College of Europe (Bruges) and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. Before entering academia, she worked as a competition lawyer in Brussels and as a teaching assistant at the College of Europe.

The Internet Society: You recently edited a symposium edition of International Data Privacy Law (IDPL) in which you argue that the interplay of law related to data protection, competition, and consumer protection is at a crucial crossroads. Why, and how does this play out in the Internet domain?

Orla Lynskey: These areas of law are at a crossroads in two senses. The first is that there has now been increasing recognition from regulators that they do overlap in some circumstances. A good example of this is the reference in the Microsoft/LinkedIn merger decision to data protection as a parameter on which firms compete, or the claim that Facebook is abusing its position of market power by making access to its service conditional on excessive data collection on various third-party websites being investigated by the German Competition Authority. However, we are also now at a crossroad in a second sense: having recognised that these areas of law need to be applied in a holistic manner, we now need to consider from a practical, procedural perspective how this overlap can be managed.

You’ve written elsewhere that digital consolidation can have an effect on digital inequality by giving platforms not just market power, but also the “power of providence.” What do you mean by this and how does it impact marginalised communities in particular?

Providence is defined in various ways, including as a form of non-human influence that controls people’s lives. I argue in the paper that dominant digital platforms have a “power of providence,” as they are – like the eye of providence – all-seeing: they have the ability to link and analyse diverse datasets in a way that provides a comprehensive overview of the lives of individuals, rendering them transparent in the process. Furthermore, they can use this unique vantage point in order to influence individuals in ways that we might until now have viewed as dystopian, for instance through personalised political advertising. Finally, the Internet’s architecture and the terms used to describe its processes (for instance, “machine learning”) give the false impression that the way in which our data is used to influence us online and nudge us in particular directions is untethered from human input, or is “neutral.” In this sense, it is given a quasi-divine status.

I suggest that this power of providence can have the particularly pernicious effect of exacerbating existing societal inequalities. I argue in the paper that this ability to use data to influence people can be used to discriminate, to differentiate and also to create perceptions. For instance, I was able to draw on the work of other scholars to indicate that data mining facilitates differentiation on the basis of socioeconomic status, which is not something that discrimination law prohibits. This research suggests that the poor are subject to more surveillance with higher stakes and are particularly vulnerable to data mining processes as a result of the devices used to connect to the Internet (notably, mobile phones which are less secure than other devices). While differentiation via data mining is not the sole purview of platforms which such power, their privileged position gives them superior data-mining capacity and means the existing information and power asymmetries are exacerbated.

Can competition law challenge the power of providence? What about data protection law? How can these work together to protect digital rights?

Competition law provisions are the only legal provisions explicitly designed to constrain the exercise of private power and so it makes sense to consider whether they can be of assistance in challenging this power of providence. I believe that, at a minimum, competition law should not make matters worse by, for instance, facilitating data-driven mergers that further consolidate our data in the hands of a very limited number of private actors. However, in some circumstances competition law could also limit abusive behaviour – for instance, exploitative terms and conditions for data usage – by firms with market power.

That said, competition law has its own limits and should only ever be a part of the overall jigsaw puzzle, with data protection law playing a leading role in regulating how our personal data can be used. To date, EU data protection law has not been robustly enforced, but I am one of those who remain optimistic that with stronger enforcement this system could be really effective.

If data protection, consumer protection, and competition law are all important in challenging harmful digital dominance, how do the different regulatory agencies responsible for dealing with these respective issues work together without encroaching on each other’s domains? Is there a need for better multistakeholder collaboration in this regard?

It is this question – of the division of labour between regulatory authorities – that has yet to be really ironed out. Ideally, as the European Data Protection Supervisor has proposed, these agencies would collaborate with one another under the auspices of a “Digital Clearing House,” or something similar.

Germany recently announced plans to try to curb digital dominance using competition law. Have you noticed any trends when it comes to other competition authorities’ responses to tech dominance around the world, and particularly how they are defining relevant markets?

There is definitely a growing recognition of the power of technology companies amongst regulators, and the wider public. This may be where competition law hits its limits, however: competition law provisions do not prevent a company from acquiring a position of market power, they simply make it unlawful for that company to abuse that position of market power in a way that is exploitative or that would exclude equally efficient competitors from the market. Economic regulation could, for instance, force tech companies to ensure structural separation between various operations (e,g., a structural separation between Facebook and WhatsApp). However, this would require legislative intervention.

The exception to this is in the context of mergers, where competition authorities get to look at the potential future impact of a transaction on the market. Here, I have argued in the past that data-driven mergers should be treated in an analogous way to media mergers and subject not only to an economic assessment but also to a broader non-competition assessment to gauge their impact on data protection and privacy. This is one of the ideas being considered in Germany and I think it is likely other competition authorities will introduce similar measures in due course.

What do you think of the idea that user data should be given digital property rights (i.e., that platforms should pay users for their data)?

Property rights in personal data are a terrible idea: they offer no real advantages compared to the current legal framework and risk exacerbating information and power asymmetries while undermining data protection as a fundamental right. Giving property rights in data would not strengthen our hand when it comes to negotiating with the tech giants, rather it would simply mean that we would lose all rights over that data once we entered into contracts with these companies. I also worry that going down this route would make data protection a luxury that can be enjoyed by those who could afford not to have their data processed, even perhaps creating the skewed incentive to reveal more data, or more sensitive data to profit from it. This is incompatible with the EU Charter right to data protection. I discuss this issue in my book on the foundations of EU data protection law. 

Is there hope in data portability as a way of countering data effects and addressing consolidation concerns?

Potentially. One explanation for the GDPR right to data portability is that it may empower consumers to switch service providers if they are unhappy with a service (for instance, to switch from Facebook to a mythical alternative if you are unsatisfied with the quality of the data protection offered). However, as I discuss in my research, the impact of this right on competition and innovation is ambiguous. It could, for instance, deter innovation by locking in the standards used by incumbent companies or increasing the costs of startups. This is all the more so as it does not require interoperability. However, whether interoperability is desirable from a data protection perspective is equally contestable. I would suggest that portability should be viewed through the lens of individual control over personal data rather than simply as a market tool, given these ambiguous effects.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet?

My main fear about the Internet is that a medium which promised so much for the advancement of rights – such as freedom of expression and of association – may end up having corrosive and divisive real world effects. One of the advantages of the Internet was that it offered people the opportunity to connect with those with similar niche interests (the Eric Cantona Appreciation Society, for example) but the personalisation of all content, including for instance political content, may push this to an extreme. That is not to say that personalisation is the only factor feeding into this concern, needless to say.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

I think the Internet at present is based on a data bubble that needs bursting. The primary example of this is the excessive data processing that online behavioural advertising entails. Even if we could argue that processing of personal data is the quid pro quo for access to online services and content that are free at the point of access, the amount of personal data processed for that exchange is clearly disproportionate. Regulators have not yet gotten to grips with this but data protection law provides a potential ground on which to challenge this processing: when considering whether consent is freely given, utmost account needs to be taken of whether the service is made conditional on consent to unnecessary processing. I have not yet seen any empirical evidence that convinces me that online behavioural advertising is so much more effective than contextual advertising that it justifies this excessive incursion into our rights.

We’re getting ready to launch the next Global Internet Report! Read the concept note and learn how the Internet Economy might shape our future.

Economy Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Payal Malik of the Competition Commission of India

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Payal Malik to hear her perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Payal Malik is the Economics Adviser and Head of the Economics Division (Chief Economist) at the Competition Commission of India. She is on secondment from the University of Delhi, where she is an associate professor of Economics. Her areas of expertise are competition law, policy and regulation. She has many years of economic consulting experience in network industries such as power and telecommunication, information and communication technologies (ICTs), innovation systems, and infrastructure. She was previously a senior research fellow at LIRNEasia and a senior consultant at the Center for Infrastructure and Regulation, National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), India. At NCAER she was a lead researcher on various infrastructure development projects, including telecoms, electricity, highways, and water and sanitation. She was also on the team that drafted the Electricity Act of India, ushering competition into the sector.

The Internet Society: This year we’re focusing our annual Internet Futures report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating vertical and horizontal consolidation trends in and across the access, services and application layers of the Internet respectively. Have you noticed any trends in this regard?

Payal Malik: Yes, we have observed both horizontal and vertical consolidation in the Internet society. Consolidation trends have been observed in digital payment services, digital farming applications, e-commerce platforms, etc. Many cases were related to acquisition of shareholdings in e-commerce firms by investment companies. For example, Walmart recently acquired a major e-commerce firm in India and entered the market of e-commerce platforms. Furthermore, many firms in the digital space, and most of the new-born companies, fall under the de minimis exemption thresholds and hence their acquisition is exempted from notification. Thus, there may be more consolidation going on that hits the “blind spot.”

You’ve long worked on competition issues in various network industries, including telecoms. How has technology’s role in societies changed in the time since you’ve been working in this field? Have you perceived a backlash against the tech industry in India (e.g., Facebook and Free Basics)?

The technology has changed drastically especially in case of the telecom sector. With the advent of Jio (a new entrant), the total telecom subscribers in India (936 million in March 2016) increased by a massive 28% to 1,202.22 million in March 2018. Further, the prices of telecom services declined significantly and data consumption per month increased by 924%. The growth of Big Data has led to innovation, the development of new sectors, and the penetration of technology even in case of traditional sectors like education and health. The rise of Big Data has also created issues of privacy, data monopolisation, etc.

Severe backlash was witnessed against Facebook’s Free Basics services in the country and the same was banned in 2016. Consequently, net neutrality rules were notified in 2018 that prevented “any form of discrimination or interference” with data, including “blocking, degrading, slowing down, or granting preferential speeds or treatment to any content.” The view of the telecom regulator was that competition alone will not be sufficient to address the problem of telecom firms becoming gatekeepers to the Internet and strong ex-ante rules are required to regulate the behaviour of infrastructure firms such that it acts as a non-discriminatory platform. The issue of data localisation is now gaining currency in India and there seems to be some protectionist undercurrents to the whole issue.

Does this the trend impact India, or is more of a global issue?

Digital economy by its very nature is such that effects will inevitably cross state-nation boundaries and India, being an open economy, does feel the impact. Technological advances in other jurisdictions percolate to India, leading to innovation within the country, complementing the existing innovation ecosystem. We also recognise the challenges concerning Big Data and consumer privacy in the competition realm, especially as we have more players entering local markets. To address such conflicting issues we are trying to find ways and means to balance user privacy and technological innovation. We are in process of drafting privacy law which may be finalised soon and become an Act of the Parliament.

What makes the technology sector different when it comes to competition regulation?

The technology sector is different than other sectors as there are numerous relevant markets having multiple sides, each with specific competition dynamics. This makes the delineation of relevant market difficult. Further, markets are such that given market at one point in time mutates into another through the exploitation of complementarities. Therefore, a nuanced assessment has to be adopted by taking into account the facts, market, and technology in question. With the advent of Big Data in digital markets, data-rich entities are able to generate more user data with the help of feedback and monetisation loops. This leads to concerns of abuse of market power, algorithms, and collusions, etc.

As a competition regulator, how do you balance the need to not hamper innovation with the need for promoting competition?

When the cases involving dynamic competition, the Competition Commission tries to strike a balance between short-term static efficiencies and the longer-term gains that arise from innovation. Assessing technology sector issues requires an understanding of the underlying technology and a comprehensive knowledge of market developments. We’re also very aware of the fact that a given market at one point in time might mutate into another through the exploitation of complementarities. Further, during the assessment, we don’t emphasise the fact that one firm has entrenched market power in a particular industry. This is because taking such a stance would damage incentives to innovate, and would be a denial of the realities of market preferences. A nuanced assessment, based on the facts of the case and the market and technology in question, is therefore the strategy that the Commission has adopted in the analysis of antitrust cases involving digital economies in India.

Germany recently announced plans to try to curb digital dominance using competition law. Have you noticed any trends when it comes to other competition authorities’ responses to tech dominance around the world, and particularly how they are defining relevant markets? How do they differ between regions?

We do keep a track of international developments taking place in field of digital economy. Developed economies across the globe have now stepped in for curtailing digital monopolies, which may be a consequence of the economic realities of their countries, however given the peculiarities of each country these issues may have a local context. As far as defining a relevant market is concerned, we do consider definitions defined by other jurisdictions. We feel that Germany and France have adopted an aggressive approach to prevent digital dominance, which India cannot adopt at present time when digital markets are at their evolving stage. With the help of complementary laws, we hope to create a level playing field for digital players in India, including startups.

Is competition law the best solution to these consolidation problems? 

Yes, we do believe competition law is the best solution for consolidation problems. But there is a possibility that traditional asset/turnover criteria may fail to capture potentially anti-competitive transactions in the tech sector. Some transactions in this market may fall below turnover-based thresholds because the target’s products are offered for free, or have yet to come to market, and generate little turnover. In such instances, the target’s value may not best be correlated to its sales. The value of the target’s sales is a rather poor indicator of the merger’s significance for competition. Thus, asset/turnover-based notification thresholds may have a ‘blind spot’ if relied on alone. Therefore, thresholds levels must be modified to take these blind spots into account.

Is there potential in data portability as a way of countering data effects and addressing consolidation concerns?

Data portability allows users to receive their data back in a format that is conducive to reuse with another service. The purpose of data portability is to promote interoperability between systems and to give greater choice and control to the user with respect to their data held by other entities. The aim is also to create a level playing field for newly established service providers that wish to take on incumbents, but are unable to do so because of the significant barriers posed by lock-in and network effects. In line with the EU’s GDPR, Indian Data Protection Bill also gives right to data portability to users. This is important as we do believe data portability has the potential to counter data effects.

Besides the potential negative implications related to digital dominance, what are your fears for the future of the Internet?

The Internet has undoubtedly revolutionised the way people shop, work, socialise, entertain themselves, etc. It has had some very serious consequences on the democratic edifices of countries with the ability of the Internet to spread misinformation and changing people’s behaviours and preferences. Second, I will be very worried if perfect price discrimination is implementable based on the individual customer data that digital monopolies have, as this will lead to killing of the positive impact of competition in technology markets. Last, though there is no reason to believe chilling of innovation maybe the final nail in the coffin. But I think that is too apocalyptical as innovation is highly contestable. 

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

I hope the Internet will continue to develop new ideas, increase entrepreneurship, help make consumers’ lives easier, bring in transparency in terms of prices and quality, reduce intermediaries in supply chain, help transform societies, etc. For all this to happen, innovation needs to be protected and the government and competition regulators are aware of this need.

We’re getting ready to launch the next Global Internet Report! Read the concept note and learn how the Internet Economy might shape our future.

Economy Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Natali Helberger on the Impact of Consolidation on Media Diversity

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Natali Helberger to hear her perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Natali Helberger is a professor of Information Law at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Law. She researches how the role of information users is changing under the influence of information technology, and the regulation of converging information and communications markets. Focus points of her research are the interface between technology and information law, user rights and the changing role of the user in information law and policy. Natali has conducted research for the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and national governments and is a regular speaker at national and international conferences. Among others, she is member of an Expert Committee of the Council of Europe on AI and Human Rights, and one of the leaders of the Dutch VSNU Citizenship & Democracy research agenda.

The Internet Society: You recently wrote a chapter for Damian Tambini and Martin Moore’s book Digital Dominance: The Power of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple (2018, Oxford University Press), focusing specifically on the impact of consolidation on media diversity. Can you tell us more? 

Natali Helberger: Damian and Martin asked me to look into the implications of the rise of digital online platforms for media diversity. Media diversity is the idea that in a democratic society there should be a variety of viewpoints and ideas from different speakers, presented to us via the media. One key trend that we see is people access news content and media content more and more not only via traditional media but also or even exclusively via new information intermediaries, such as social media platforms, apps, AI assistants, and search engines (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2016, 2017; Pew Research Center 2016).

These information intermediaries have stepped in to fill a critical gap in the news delivery chain: consolidating attention and helping users to make a selection of the news that they find relevant. The result is a structural transformation in which news is turning into a customizable product that can be carefully targeted and adjusted to individual recipients and the demands of advertisers. The presence of such data-driven, heavily targeted platforms does not necessarily need to be a challenge to a diverse information environment, as long as they are open to diverse voices, and there are alternative sources of information. But what to make of a situation in which there remain only a few dominant global sources of information? And in the light of such a dominant player and a heavily targeted news environment, what are the prospects of still encountering diverse media content if we do not succeed in preserving a flourishing media environment also outside platforms?

This year we’re focusing our annual Global Internet Report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating consolidation trends in the access, services, and application layers of the Internet respectively, as well as consolidation trends acting vertically across layers (e.g., companies gaining dominance in more than one of the Internet’s layers).

What do you think of this trend?

One consolidation trend that I am observing with some concern is the consolidation of the many different functions that the we use the Internet for in a few, powerful platforms: whether it is access to media content and news, social interaction, political information and interaction with our democratic representatives, buying and selling services, interacting with government services, with teachers and educational institutions, doing research – all these activities are facilitated by a few players who provide us with a super convenient service architecture to do so. And because their services are so good and convenient to use, we increasingly rely on them and make them, step-by-step, the backbone of our digital life. We should be concerned about the dependencies that this creates, not only in the economic but also in the political sense. Public institutions, such as universities, political parties, governments, public services, and media in particular should have a role to play in countering this trend, and facilitating alternative venues and infrastructures of public life on the internet.

How has technology’s role in societies changed in the time since you’ve been studying technology’s impact on the media? Have you perceived a backlash against the tech industry?  

I think that for some countries we are very close to completing our transition from an analogue to a data society. In the Netherlands, for example, the postal services have begun removing post boxes because few people write letters anymore, and in the communication modes between citizens and public services, digital has become the default. Having said so, I think it is important to acknowledge that the extent to which technology has already changed societies differs from country to country, and even for regions. We must be very careful that these differences do not result in new divides and inequalities when it comes to access to services and knowledge.

Regarding the backlash against the tech industry it is important to distinguish between the tech and the industry part in “tech industry.” It is up to society how tech can be used to advance human welfare, society, and fundamental rights, but also to decide in which situations we do not want technology to make important decisions about humans. Think of the use of AI in deciding who should get access to vital services such as health care, schooling, or justice. The tech industry can be an important partner in doing so. There can also be situations in which the interests of society and industry are not aligned or even opposed. And it is here where societies and governments must push back, and should not shy away protecting public interests and human rights against industry interests.

What are your other fears for the future of the Internet?

I am concerned about the shifts in not only economic but also political power that the Internet and our transition to a data society have caused. This is a shift that our current legal system is poorly prepared for. (Some) platforms are an instructive example of this. As important venues for people to inform themselves, form their political opinions, and interact with peers as well as their democratic representatives, these platforms are no longer only economic actors. They are also active actors in political processes, like elections or decisions about new laws. And because of the influence about the way people receive information and form opinions, data power can easily turn into political power. Commercial laws, like competition law and consumer law, are not prepared to deal with the political power that data can give. It is high time that we think of how to contain the political power of platforms, for example by revisiting our rules about political advertising, concentration of communication power, but also division of political power.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

That the Internet continues to be a place where we can explore, connect, explore, and play – and do so without the need to be constantly alert about our privacy, whether we are being watched, manipulated or how our behavour can be used to advance someone’s else goal.

I am tremendously grateful that I am living and researching in this age of almost unlimited access to information and communication, and I hope that my work, and that of my colleagues at the Institute for Information Law in Amsterdam can help to make the Internet remain this place.

We’re getting ready to launch the next Global Internet Report! Read the concept note and learn how the Internet Economy might shape our future.

Economy Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future Technology

Future Thinking: Mozilla Director of Public Policy Chris Riley on the Internet Economy

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. We interviewed Chris Riley to hear his perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.

Chris Riley is Director, Public Policy at Mozilla, working to advance the open Internet through public policy analysis and advocacy, strategic planning, coalition building, and community engagement. Chris manages the global Mozilla public policy team and works on all things Internet policy, motivated by the belief that an open, disruptive Internet delivers tremendous socioeconomic benefits, and that if we as a global society don’t work to protect and preserve the Internet’s core features, those benefits will go away. Prior to joining Mozilla, Chris worked as a program manager at the U.S. Department of State on Internet freedom, a policy counsel with the nonprofit public interest organization Free Press, and an attorney-advisor at the Federal Communications Commission.  

The Internet Society: Why is there a need for promoting a better understanding of technology amongst policy wonks, and of policy among technologists?

Chris Riley: While I started out as a mathematics and computer science student, I decided to shift into law and ultimately policy because I was concerned that the evolution of law and regulation around the tech industry wasn’t being driven from a point of technical clarity and understanding. I was worried  that this could have consequences, both intended and unintended, for the terrific socioeconomic benefits that we can and should derive from the Internet.

Today I say to every new cohort of employees at Mozilla that, as Lawrence Lessig once quipped, “code is law,” but “law is law,” too. Mozilla is at its strongest when we think about these things together, and the Internet is the same – when both the people building code and the people building legal systems have enough of a mutual understanding of what’s important and how the other works. The technologists need a broad policy understanding so that they can build that into their systems and their system policies; while the law and policy designers must have enough of an understanding of the technical side that they design law and policy that reflect and amplify the good parts of technology while leaving plenty of room for future flexibility, agility and innovation. I think it’s really those two things coming together that’s vital to the ecosystem as a whole.

How does Mozilla position itself in the Internet economy? Are you a platform?

Although there are some services that we have that are platform-ish (e.g. our acquisition of Pocket in 2017), the core of what we do is related to the fact that we’re a software company. Being a software company is really at the core of Mozilla’s ethos. We write open-source software and we distribute it to the world both as code and packages (downloads and applications).

I don’t expect Mozilla will, in the future, want to emerge as more of a platform company than a software company. We don’t have the scale or the style or the structure to do that. We’re small; we’re non-profit. We’re not ever going to be the model that’s geared towards the platform and social network economy of growing network effects at great debt in order to recuperate the economic benefits. We’re a mature and established business, and really focus on our strength as open-source software developers. That said, we have the right kind of expertise, mission and charter to speak for the Internet in a positive way. We’re therefore a hard-to-define duality of non-profit, mission-driven and software company. This is why it so hard to categorize us.

This year we’re focusing our annual Internet Futures report on consolidation in the Internet economy. We’re specifically investigating consolidation trends in the access, services and application layers of the Internet respectively, as well as consolidation trends acting vertically across layers (e.g. companies gaining dominance in more than one of the Internet’s layers).

Have you noticed a trend in this regard?

We’ve definitely noticed that the Internet is headed towards a more and more centralized future, defined in that sense by both horizontal and vertical centralization trends. We have fewer effective competitors who are presenting the same kinds of substitutable services to users, as well as fewer meaningful choices for users among servers within a single layer. In addition to horizontal consolidation, we’re also seeing many vertical mergers within the tech sector.

I think the world we live in now is too often one in which investment in start-up companies is geared towards reaching the point where they can be sold to one of the existing big players rather than grow into a big and independent enterprise itself. This is a challenge for me and for others because we grew up with an Internet where today’s big company is going to be tomorrow’s second tier. It’s not that I want to penalise any individual companies, but I want to believe in a market where we have the capacity to grow new companies that can become the giants of the next generation of the Internet. I’m not sure we’re there anymore. I think partly the reason why we’re not there is that some of the big companies today are aggressively staying ahead of the trend through massive investments in research and development and, to that extent, kudos to them, and may they continue to have the opportunity to outcompete others and continue to grow from that perspective.

But we’re reaching a point now where it’s going to be far too easy to bolster a weak product in one of these markets by effectively tying it to a dominant product in another market. And that’s the point where competition might have failed. That’s the point where we see good ideas get squelched not because of any technical or systematic problems with their design, implementation or approach, but simply because they weren’t being offered by or interested in being acquired by one of the existing dominant ecosystems.

How does this the trend impact Mozilla?

Concentration and consolidation is an issue that goes back to Mozilla’s history in a very deep way. We were effectively founded to respond to the duopoly of Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer. We decided users should have a choice in web browsing and so we created something that became effective and even better than what Microsoft was offering. The window of opportunity we had to create this product was aided in no small part by competition inquiries into Microsoft that were ongoing then. Today, we want to ensure that future Mozillas will have the space to see places where some things are underperforming and to then innovate. We’re looking for the same opportunities ourselves as we’re seeking to diversify our product portfolio beyond Firefox.

[To read more about Mozilla’s thoughts on the issue of dominance and APIs specifically, see Mozilla’s recent submission to the US Federal Trade Commission on competition and consumer protection as it affects communications systems such as the Internet.]

How has technology’s role in societies changed in the time since you’ve been working in this field? Have you perceived a backlash against the tech industry?

In the US, overwhelmingly so. In Europe, less so, because I feel that Europe was pretty much already there. I frequently categorize 2017 in the U.S. as the year that everyone starts to attack tech.  For many, many years, the tech industry had experienced a honeymoon period with the public and policymakers thanks to the scale of investment and growth, and the pace at which shiny new things that users like were produced by our industry.

We were forgiven the occasional (or so it seemed) negative social or economic  consequences that came with that. But that window of time has now closed. I think that time frame was shorter outside the US because many of the economic benefits that came from this industry were imbued here; it benefited the U.S. and the American economy. So those not quite so flushed with the economic benefits of the industry were quicker to see the unintended consequences and other social and economic harms that came from this model.

Certainly in the U.S., at least, we’ve seen growing awareness of problems associated with centralization. We’ve seen problems like the discrimination that can be reintroduced with machine learning systems that are trained by discriminatory data getting well-deserved public attention. We’ve seen incredible concerns with contentious and unpleasant, harmful, and sometimes illegal speech that appears on platforms and how platforms respond to that.

The world is therefore dramatically different now than to what it was two years ago in terms of how the public view the tech industry. I think it’s important for Mozilla and my colleagues in the tech industry to understand this dynamic and to really strive to make the Internet better. To try to turn that tide around. To acknowledge that there are problems and not everything is perfect. That we have to make some changes both internally and externally in the laws and regulations around us. We need to be serious, open, honest and collaborative in how we approach these problems so that we can get them solved.

What are your other fears for the future of the Internet?

I’m worried about a future of the Internet where users are choosing among four or five vertically integrated stacks of applications and services where they can’t pick and choose a heterogenous Internet experience from amongst them and where nobody with a brilliant idea can come up and create a new business because that space is already effectively occupied and there’s no room for them to grow, and no investment in their ideas because the economic model doesn’t make sense for a new business. If we reach a world where we have vertically integrated silos, competition would have failed. But I still very much believe that we can salvage it.

How should we prevent this from happening? Is competition law the best solution to these consolidation problems?

I’m worried that our understanding of competition law doesn’t deal with consolidation on the Internet properly, because traditional models of market concentration say that if you have four or five businesses that are relatively balanced, then you have a competitive market. But even if we had a competitive market in a traditional sense, it wouldn’t be the Internet.

I think there’s more that can be done with competition law and policy. The idea of U.S. antitrust law was to support consumer welfare, and it’s a powerful idea, one that hasn’t really been explored in the past thirty years or so. There’s a lot more room to interpret the existing legal precedents and statutes we already have. This is something the agencies could choose to pursue on their own, and we would welcome legislative interventions to make this a smoother process.

I think that the solution we should be pursuing in the near term as response to the consolidation trend is through competition law, rather than a reinterpretation or calling for a different kind of regulatory approach. It takes too long to do this: the last time that we tried to overhaul communications law in the United States (the Telecommunications Act of 1996), it was a twenty-year process.  If we take twenty years to address the challenge of centralization, the Internet will have been forever transformed and probably not for the better.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

My hope is that we will see an industry-wide recognition of the impact and entanglement that our work has throughout our economy and our society and a humble and thoughtful approach to how best to approach and manage the responsibility that come with that. More and more open engagement with policymakers and with the public and a restoring of the public’s faith that technology and the Internet are here to make our lives and our world better and not worse. And I do actually believe that we can get there.

We’re getting ready to launch the 2018 Global Internet Report! Read the concept note and learn how the Internet Economy might shape our future.

Photo ©Karen de Jager

Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: what3words on IP Addresses for the “Real” World

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. In July 2018, we interviewed Giles Rhys Jones to hear his perspective on the forces shaping the Internet.

Giles Rhys Jones is the chief marketing officer at what3words, which has developed an algorithm to convert complex GPS coordinates into unique and memorable three-word addresses; thus becoming the geographical equivalent of an IP address. In doing so, the company is helping to provide addresses to the more than 75% of the world, which still suffers from poor or non-existent addressing, meaning they struggle to open bank accounts, register births, or access basic services like water and electricity. By better or more simply mapping locations, W3W supports social mobility, growth, and development.

The Internet Society: W3W has divided the world into a grid of three-by-three meters and has assigned each square a unique three-word, rather than numbered, address. Where would the Internet Society’s address in Reston, Virginia be if we were to adopt the W3W system?

Giles Rhys Jones: The Internet Society’s front door in Reston is at the W3W address “cone.courier.stuff”. [Other readers can easily check their addresses too.] 

Why do we need better location referencing?

W3W was specifically developed because so many parts of the world don’t have addresses. Even in the best-addressed countries in the world, like the UK or Germany, postcodes tend to cover large areas and it can be quite difficult to find a home or business. If, for example, I want to meet someone in a park, or if I have an accident on a hillside, it’s very difficult to specify exactly where I am. So it would also be difficult for, say, emergency services to quickly reach me in case of an accident. We therefore devised the W3W system to be a user-friendly version of GPS (global positioning system) coordinates. GPS, which consists of latitudes and longitudes, is very accurate, but difficult to use. W3W is basically a simple, user-friendly version of GPS coordinates. People can share their W3W address more quickly, more accurately, and with less ambiguity than any other system.

What are the benefits to, for instance, someone who lives on a farm in rural Uganda, like one of our June 2018 Internet Futures interviewees?

If a farmer in rural Uganda wants to specify a pick-up point for produce, or a specific area or part of a field which has a disease, or the exit and entry point to a field, they can do so by simply using three words, often even in their own language. All over the UK, for example, farmers are already using the system to enable them to be more precise about locations on their farmland. Elsewhere, W3W is also being used by police, emergency services, and disaster response teams. It’s been used, for example, to deliver time-sensitive medicine to a specific location in a large hospital when such hospital covers a substantial area but only has one generic address. Besides more specific locations, another benefit of W3W is that it’s addresses are fixed: even if new houses are built, or phones go down, or a disaster hits, no postal address needs to be updated. It still works.

How does W3W as a five-year-old company compete in a tech landscape seemingly dominated by a few tech giants, like Google, Facebook, and Amazon?

W3W doesn’t consider itself a competitor of these companies. The beauty of our solution is that it’s based on code even if we also have an app and a website which enables individuals to use it. Companies are licensing our services and using it to build their own apps. While there are, for example, a number of navigation apps that compete with Google maps, for instance, many of them have purchased a W3W licence and built it into their systems.

In an Internet economy sometimes known for anti-competitive trends, are you concerned about W3W’s concept being copied by competitors?

Our system is pretty complex: even just dividing the world into squares was quite complicated. And then we have teams of linguists who have to consider and test all of the words we use. In addition to these technical parameters and investments, we’ve also had patents granted to protect some of the components of our system. If someone was to try to copy it, there would be legal ramifications.

W3W addresses are available in a range of languages. Can you tell us why you’ve opted to expand beyond English as a primary language?

We believe that everyone should be able to talk about anywhere on the planet in their own language. W3W is already available in 26 languages, and plan to roll out three more later this year. A variety of factors dictate our choice of language, including our business partners, government partners, and the size of relevant populations. This is primarily a business prerogative, but we’re simultaneously changing lives. For the same reason we’ve offered our services to NGOs and intergovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross and UN for free or at a low cost.

How are you ensuring that your services are accessible to all? 

The W3W concept has already proven particularly useful for people with disabilities. BlindSquare, for instance, uses our code to enable blind people and people with visual impairments to navigate better. The app describes environments, notifies users of point of interests, and generally helps people travel more independently. We’ve also been involved in other applications and solutions specifically designed to help people with limited mobility and visual or hearing disabilities, for example.

With the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, distance and location appear to be mattering less, with people at opposite ends of the globe being connected at the click of a button. Do you think location and place matter less or more as Internet coverage expands?

On one hand, we’re becoming more globalised. You can be connected to people thousands of miles away, and can work from anywhere. But on the other hand it’s rather ridiculous that we somehow still have to stand on a street corner and wave down an Uber to tell them which way to go. And this is an issue in most developed countries.

In more developing contexts, we believe you need three things for development: to be connected, to be banked, and to have an address.  Without an address, you can’t vote, you can’t get aid, and it’s difficult to get a bank account.

For example, W3W is now being used in Liberia to manage microfinance in some of the informal settlements. Before our partnership, many people had to draw pictures to describe their addresses. We believe an address really enables people to take a first step on the social and economic development ladder.

For this reason, we believe it’s become ever more important to have an accurate access. And street addressing is woefully inadequate for the way we live today – whether you live in London or in Durban.

What are your fears for the future of the Internet? What are your hopes for the future of the Internet?

The Internet economy is facing an exciting time: in a way it’s made it easy to start a business, to grow, to be connected. A number of things limit that growth, and we believe an address is one of those things. In some of the African countries we operate in, there is limited opportunity to scale e-commerce, for example, as you can’t physically deliver to people. This limits growth and the potential we have.

But dominant platforms like Google and Facebook  were also startups too. We are pretty ambitious; we want to become a global standard. We want people to see “word.word.word” and immediately recognise it as an address. We want W3W addresses on business cards, for instance. That is our objective.

How do we ensure that the Internet of the future creates opportunity and empowers people? Explore the 2017 Internet Society Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future and read the recommendations to ensure that humanity remains at the center of tomorrow’s Internet.

Economy Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Biddemu Bazil Mwotta on the Internet Economy

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. In June 2018, we interviewed two stakeholders –Biddemu Bazil Mwotta, who introduced an agribusiness app, and Roxanne Varza, the director of  a startup incubator  – to hear their different perspectives on the forces shaping the Internet.

Biddemu Bazil Mwotta, a 25 under 25 awardee, introduced the mobile-agribusiness-app AgroDuuka, which connects farmers directly with buyers in Uganda, his home country. AgroDuuka creates a market for local farmers, where there was none before, and eliminates the cost of working through intermediaries. To date, it has connected more than 800 smallholder farmers from 36 villages to buyers throughout Uganda. (You can read Roxanne Varza’s interview here).

The Internet Society: The AgroDuuka app, which you developed, bridges traditional barriers for farmers who want to access new markets by connecting them directly with buyers. Why did you develop the app?

Biddemu Bazil Mwotta: I grew up in an agricultural community in rural Uganda. My mother is a farmer, and I always used to help her in her garden. I realized that my mother and many other farmers in community were being exploited by middle agents who were buying produce from them and selling the produce at exorbitant prices in urban areas. AgroDuuka thus empowers farmers like my mother with information – information like market prices in the region and broader.

For my mother, the Internet has had a significantly positive effect on her life. She can now sell her produce to the right buyers and the right price, and can make a profit – something she rarely did before. And most people in my community are very happy about this. My mother also has more time at hand – time which she would normally have used to travel to markets, she can now use to do other things.

What’s it like for startups like yours to compete in a tech landscape seemingly dominated by a few tech giants, like Google, Facebook, and Amazon? 

It is difficult for startups to compete in the tech landscape due to limited funds for scaling up. On the other hand, big tech companies enjoy economies of scale, for instance.

What is hindering wider adoption of your app?

I really believe the Internet can influence development in Uganda and Africa more broadly – as apps like mine have shown. But in Uganda, very few people actually have access to the Internet. And it’s really hard to include them in the potential benefits if they don’t have actual access. A lack of infrastructure in Uganda is probably the biggest barrier to Internet access, especially in rural areas. But even in some urban areas like Kampala the quality and speed of the Internet is often limited. Without improving access levels, and the quality of access that is available, our people won’t be able to benefit from the Internet’s potential for development.

Where do you hope to be by 2022 – or what do you hope to have achieved? What are your hopes for your mother and other agricultural entrepreneurs using your app?

In 2022, I hope AgroDuuka will take lead in the offering of the fairer agricultural trade transactions in the world. We hope to have a global agricultural community. I hope that my mother and other farmers will not be dependent on the local market by 2022. Theirs, I hope, will be a global market in which they can sell to countries across Europe, America, and Asia, for instance. The whole world should be open to them.

What are your fears and hopes for the future of the Internet?

I am afraid that people will cause harm online and offline which will not only prevent the Internet from supporting development, but which could also risk humanity. But even more so, I’m afraid that the inequality gap will increase for people who don’t have access to the Internet. They will be left further behind.

I hope that everybody is able to access the Internet, as I believe the Internet will be at the centre of development for all communities in Uganda and beyond. The Internet can give us all equal opportunities – and can therefore promote equality in its own way.

What do you think the future of the Internet looks like? Explore the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future to see how the Internet might transform our lives across the globe, then choose a path to help shape tomorrow.

Human Rights Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Arnaud Castaignet on Estonia’s e-Citizenship

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. In May 2018, we interviewed Arnaud Castaignet, head of public relations for Estonia’s e-Residency programme.

Arnaud Castaignet is the head of public relations for the Republic of Estonia’s e-Residency programme, a government-issued digital ID offering the freedom to join a community of digitally empowered citizens and open and run a global EU company fully online from anywhere in the world. Previously, he worked for the French President François Hollande as a digital strategist. Arnaud is also a Board Member of Open Diplomacy, a Paris-based think tank established in 2010, and a member of the Young Transatlantic Network of Future Leaders, a flagship initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States specifically geared toward young professionals 35 years old and younger. Estonia not only became the first country to say that Internet access was a human right, but has given their citizens free public WiFi, enabled them to vote online since 2005, and are protecting them with strong privacy, transparency and data protection laws.

The Internet Society: Estonia’s e-Residency programme bridges traditional borders by offering any citizen of the world the opportunity to become a digital citizen of Estonia. How’s that working for you?

Arnaud Castaignet: The e-Residency programme was created in December 2014 with a radical but simple idea: why should a country only offer its services to its own citizens and residents and not also to anyone from anywhere in the world? E-Residency is a transnational digital ID accessible to anyone from anywhere in the world, giving access to Estonian e-services without actually coming to Estonia. Although Estonia sees access to Internet as a right, we know access to services is totally unfair around the world. Unfortunately, if you are not from the right country, if you don’t live in the right place, you might not be able to access basic services that are necessary to create and run your business. With e-Residency, we want to provide all people with equal access to services and opportunities.

Two core values are driving our action. The e-Residency programme is inclusive: every person on the planet is able to become an e-resident of Estonia. Our programme is also empowering: we believe everybody in the world should have an equal opportunity to access the tools they need to become a successful entrepreneur and reach their full potential. We believe in this principle of fair equality of opportunity. Those who have the same level of talent and capability and the same willingness to use those gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class or origin, where they live or decide to travel. Our message to entrepreneurs is “focus on your ideas, your business, your product; we will keep the way open for you.”

The Internet Society: Is it true that even the Japanese prime minister is an e-resident of Estonia?

Arnaud Castaignet: Several Head of States became e-residents as an acknowledgement of Estonia’s advanced digital society and as a support for our innovative programme. Shinzo Abe is one of them, but also Angela Merkel and Xavier Bettel, for instance.

The Internet Society: Do you think other countries will, in the future, follow Estonia’s example in offering e-residency to attract investors/businesses?

Arnaud Castaignet: We believe that, by definition, no model can be fully duplicated from one country to another. Having an e-Residency programme was only possible because, first, Estonia has been building a digital society throughout the years. It is also influenced by the country’s mindset regarding innovation and transparency, our belief in the need to build more business ties with the rest of the world, and our vision of the need for States to transform themselves into something more agile, inclusive and empowering.

But we often receive political delegations from countries willing to be inspired by our experience and we hear about projects such as “m-residency” in Azerbaijan or Lithuania’s plans to use blockchain technology to allow company creation. We are quite enthusiastic about such developments because it will force us to remain innovative. The world is changing very fast and countries can easily fall behind if they refuse to address new issues or bury their heads in the sand.

We are always willing to share our experience and expertise, not only about e-Residency, but also about how States can evolve. Just to give you an example, each year, Estonia saves the equivalent of 2 percent of its GDP by using digital signature. If this system would be generalized everywhere, many European countries could benefit.

The Internet Society: Estonia is often cited as the poster child of e-governance with its radical digital developments. Can you tell us more about what differentiates Estonia from other countries in this regard?

Arnaud Castaignet: I think the main difference is that Estonia’s digital society is based on trust. The government of Estonia is built upon a solid foundation of transparency, with personal privacy and data integrity taken very seriously. Each citizen (or resident, or e-resident) knows exactly which administration has checked its personal data. Digital society and e-governance can only be created if there is trust between the people, state authorities and private enterprises. Building trust has got very little to do with technical solutions, but has a great deal to do with mindsets and culture. Changing this mindset is much more difficult and time-consuming than creating technical solutions. This means a lot of everyday work in building openness and safeguarding privacy and transparency.

It also cannot be built overnight: it’s a long and challenging process, requiring help and collaboration from different institutional and private actors, and a matter that it feels natural to address at the very beginning of the process of digital transformation of a country. Information must be shared, administration and government must be transparent, informal forms of interaction must be built, and you need to develop internal secure IT systems for public institutions that can be trusted, from the inside and the outside.

The Internet Society: What is the feedback to your programme? Has there been backlash, especially at a time when nationalism appears to be on the rise in some European countries?

Arnaud Castaignet: We now have more than 40,000 e-residents from 150 countries. Their stories are of course very diverse but they all have one thing in common: our programme helped to solve issues faced by these entrepreneurs and freelancers around the world. These individuals now see Estonia as a problem-solving country and we are proud of it.

With e-Residency, we show that a country doesn’t have to choose between being inclusive to the rest of the world or to make its population wealthier. It is by opening our digital borders that we generate Estonia’s revenues for the future that will benefit all Estonian citizens. We know there are opposite trends in other countries and some governments are more interested in building new walls, but building barriers will only prevent their citizens from gaining new and more opportunities. Walls do not protect anyone.

The Internet Society: Blockchain underpins many of your services, but some people are arguing that blockchain’s benefits are unreasonably hyped. What has your experience shown?

Arnaud Castaignet: The Estonian government has been testing blockchain technology since 2008. From 2012, blockchain has been in use in Estonia’s registries, such as national health, judicial, legislative, security and commercial code systems, with plans to extend its use to other spheres such as personal medicine, cybersecurity and data embassies. We believe blockchain has a great potential because it can improve trust in systems and, in our case, it adds an extra layer of security.

Whether we like it or not, the world is becoming more decentralised. The development of blockchain technology should make us build new lending relationships between citizens, companies and the state. I would say it is for the best because this is one of the reasons why blockchain has such a great potential. Not only does it have the ability to remove entrenched middlemen, but it can also improve the overall transparency of our systems. Of course, coordination and openness amongst technologists, designers and citizens is necessary. However, we must not be overly optimistic about the capacity of technological innovation, on its own, to change the course of history. People always come first.

The Internet Society: Can you tell us more about how Estonia encourages transparency in legislative processes? Why is it important, in your experience, to involve all stakeholders in governance? 

Arnaud Castaignet: The Estonian public can read every draft law submitted since February 2003. This system is also using blockchain technology. Readers can see who submitted the legislation, its current status, and changes made to it as it passed through the parliamentary process. Once a proposed act becomes law, it is published in the online state gazette, another searchable database that acts as an open legal library. The idea behind it is to increase the level of transparency in the state, to cut down corruption, and encourage citizens to take an active interest in legislative affairs. In 2017, the citizen initiative portal was launched, also making it possible to compose and send collective initiatives to the Estonian Parliament.

The Internet Society: What does the Estonian digital example tell us about the future of governance? What will the role of governments be in the future? Will they become more technocratic or neutral stewards of citizens’ increasingly digital lives (taxes, e-commerce, etc.)?

Arnaud Castaignet: We are facing an unprecedented era of change with multiple waves of technology enabling new business models and reshaping our economies and societies. Increasingly accustomed to living and working digitally, citizens might now have higher expectations for government’s technological adeptness and capability in the future. Most government structures and processes date to earlier than the 1950s and some of them seem to be more interested in building new walls rather than better serving their population in the digital age. These governments may face irrelevance if they don’t adapt to the new needs, habits and practices of their citizens.

The Internet Society: With Estonia’s ID card being central to life in Estonia – including banking, benefits, paying for parking tickets, accessing medical records, voting, renewing licences, etc. – how do you deal with fears about data protection, cybersecurity, and privacy?

Arnaud Castaignet: We must deal with any situation with full transparency because our digital nation depends on the trust of all its people — citizens, residents and e-residents. You cannot expect trust if the State is not transparent and accountable. If there is no citizen control of the use of personal data, citizens would be legitimately worried about their privacy. In Estonia, to ensure transparency and accountability, citizens are allowed to monitor their own privacy. They can trace anyone who has tried to access their data by logging on to the state portal, There have been a few cases — among doctors and policemen, for instance — where people have been sentenced for unethically accessing certain databases. Protecting the integrity of our digital identity is always a top priority.

But being pioneers in these fields also means we will sometimes be among the first to encounter new challenges. Ten years ago, Estonia was the first in the world to experience a nationwide cyber-attack, for example, although no data was compromised. The attack served as a wake-up call for how the country’s digital infrastructure could be secured through radical new technology. Of course, no system can be fully secured but we still believe paper-based administrations are less secured than digital ones.

The Internet Society: Could your e-Residency programme redefine what it means to be a country in the future? Do you think digital identity will one day extend to constitutional rights or actual citizenship too, and not just everyday matters?

Arnaud Castaignet: Our secure digital identity system and e-services facilitate locational independence. The state serves not only its sparsely populated areas, but also the entire Estonian diaspora. Estonians who live anywhere in the world can maintain a connection to their homeland via e-services, contribute to the legislative process and even participate in elections. All of this facilitates the mobility of the population, while maintaining a strong link between them and public services. The e-Residency programme is now redefining this because it allows non-Estonians to benefit from these services; they use our country as a service. This was the idea behind the launch of our programme: why not also offer these e-services to non-Estonians, even those who do not reside in Estonia, who need better everyday solutions than those offered by their own states?

What we see is that this system also redefines what being an Estonian means. As President Kaljulaid said, “one can be Estonian in many ways. You can be an Estonian by thinking the same way we do, by having an interest in our country, by being an e-resident”. As I said, many e-residents want to know more about Estonia after they discover the country as a result of e-Residency. Some of them learn the language, others want to physically move here, and most of them become the best promoters of our country. They don’t give up their national identity, they add another that contributes to build their own personal identity and the way in which they define themselves. Global citizens need inclusive identities.

I, for instance, consider my personal identity as being fully global: I am an European, a French citizen of Cambodian origin, working for the Estonian government and benefiting from both French and Estonian services. Just as national identities are made up from national myths and ideas, personal identities are a construction based on several factors: the nationality and citizenship, of course, but also values, ideas, experience, areas of interests, among other things.

Right now, being an e-resident doesn’t mean having civil or legal rights in Estonia. If we reach hundreds of thousands of e-residents contributing to Estonian economy and benefiting from Estonian services, we will need to find ways for them to be more integrated to Estonian society, which will make the Estonian community much bigger. Estonia might one day have 1,3 million citizens but a community of 10 million e-residents feeling at least partly Estonian.

The Internet Society: What does this changing notion of identity mean for the future of privacy?

Arnaud Castaignet: Old, paper methods of identification – passports, birth certificates, driving licences, utility bills – are simply not suited for an online world. Access to health, banking and education also remains difficult for more than one billion people, including refugees and displaced populations, without an ID. The UN and other intergovernmental initiatives set a goal of providing everyone on the planet with a legal ID by 2030. It is well documented that those with access to a form of identity are better protected and able to access essential services than those who do not have an official identity. Digital identity and access systems can unlock a range of basic and empowering services for individuals, including financial inclusion, healthcare and education. They also hold significant promise for helping refugees and displaced populations to access immediate and longer-term services.

For public authorities, the key challenge will be to create harmonious digital bonds that secure the relationship between digital identities and wider society. This is only possible through a public framework of trust, built on guarantees of private data protection and security. To empower individuals, identity systems need to enhance security and convenience, preserve privacy and uphold individual rights and freedoms. Privacy and user control are core to realizing the full potential of digital identity. Stakeholders must create pre-emptive and responsive tools for safeguarding users against privacy violations, and establish legal frameworks and mechanisms for oversight and recourse in the event of misuse or abuse.

The Internet Society: What are your hopes for the future of the Internet? What are your fears?

Nothing new comes into our lives without a hidden curse. My biggest fear is that the Internet might help to perpetuate socioeconomic divides, especially if digital inequalities remain. In my opinion, the Internet must be a tool to reduce inequalities, whether they are digital, socioeconomic, geographical, etc. This is why topics such as net neutrality, for example, matter. When one attacks net neutrality, we know it will harm the poor because it reduces access to opportunities. We know from history that disruptive and game-changing ideas often come from the margins, not from big and established actors.

Of course, no one knows exactly how the Internet will evolve. I am convinced that, despite much of the negativity in the news right now, the overall trend appears to be positive for the opportunities that await our generation and the next one. My biggest hope is that Internet will allow more innovators to forge a way to the unknown by offering equal opportunities, thanks to access to services, information and education.  I am quite optimistic that governments and institutions will use the Internet to build more bridges and invest in skills development, and particularly soft skills – that combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character traits, social and emotional intelligence, that are absolutely crucial in the digital age. These skills will help citizens to adapt to disruption and will facilitate social and geographical mobility – some of the main issues and opportunities of our century – and increase the knowledge of others, other cultures and people.

What do you think the future of the Internet looks like? Explore the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future to see how the Internet might transform our lives across the globe, then choose a path to help shape tomorrow.

Photo credit: Web Summit

Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Augusto Mathurin on Digital Divides

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. In April 2018, we interviewed two stakeholders –Getachew Engida, Deputy Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Augusto Mathurin, who created Virtuágora, an open source digital participation platform – to hear their different perspectives on the forces shaping the Internet.

Augusto Mathurin is a 25-year-old Argentinian who strongly believes in the need to enable all people to participate in decision-making which can impact them and their communities. With this in mind, Augusto developed an open source digital participation platform as part of a university project. The main goal of this platform, Virtuágora, was to create a common space in which citizens’ opinions and their representatives’ proposals could converge. The concept was derived from the Greek agora – the central square of ancient Grecian cities where citizens met to discuss their society. In 2017, Augusto was awarded the Internet Society’s 25 under 25 award for making an impact in his community and beyond.  (You can read Getachew Engida’s interview here).

The Internet Society: Your reason for creating the multistakeholder platform Virtuágora in your home town shares similarities with the notion of multistakeholder participation in Internet governance. What challenges do you think are plaguing participation in these types of crowdsourced platforms and Internet governance today?

Augusto Mathurin: It’s still really difficult to involve government in these kinds of collaborative mechanisms. While the challenges we have to tackle – like digital divides – need the input of multiple stakeholders, governments are sometimes fearful of collaborating with other stakeholders because they think it means they’ll lose their sovereignty. This challenge is compounded by the fact that governments tend to operate in election cycles, making it difficult to get sustained commitments to collaborative decision-making models.

On the other hand, participation is to some extent becoming easier with emerging technologies. Video calls, for instance, have made it possible to have real conversations around the world, which is a real improvement. There is still a lot of work to do to improve remote participation, however.

What role do you think other technology has to play in sustainable development in developing regions (like Latin America)?

Open source technology, in particular, offers a great opportunity to achieve sustainable development in developing regions. When someone develops any kind of technology and publishes it as open source, it doesn’t matter where it was done because from that moment it starts to belong to everyone. Remote and neglected communities can take these open technologies and replicate them to create solutions for their problems.

Community networks are a great example of this, but there are a lot of initiatives in other areas like green energy, mobility, health, education, etc.

What trends do you think will impact information societies in three to five years? What role will or do algorithms play?

Many organizations are spending a lot of money on virtual reality and augmented reality. I think all the trending technologies in the future will continue to merge the virtual world and the real one.

While algorithms play an increasingly important role in, for example, the media, it is important to always place people first. When we talk about the media we are talking about trust, and we cannot trust algorithms when we are not even sure if they are running without being manipulated or corrupted. On the other hand, when a person is communicating something, she would put her reputation at risk if she said something fake. I’m sure that AI can help offer quick and efficient organization and filtering of data, but I think we will need good journalists we can trust at least for some more years to come.

What do you think about increasing calls in various countries to regulate online platforms like Facebook more strictly? Do you agree or disagree?

Platforms extract data from us and from our devices compulsively, and that’s clearly wrong. But regulation is not necessarily the solution. It’s problematic that we are using systems in the cloud that are like black boxes and there’s no way to audit them in an efficient way. We can promulgate laws and impose penalties, but these companies can just pretend they are complying with the regulation and at the same time could still be collecting our data without consent.

We had the Volkswagen emissions scandal as proof of how hard is to assure systems are according to the regulation. In 2015, it was discovered that Volkswagen had intentionally programmed one of its diesel engines to activate their emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing to meet US standards, but emit up to 40 times in real-world driving.

When we start talking about platforms in the cloud, it’s even harder to do regulatory compliance audits, and so stricter regulatory measures are useless. The solution is not in regulation, but it rather lies in embracing open technology.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet? What are your fears?

My biggest fear is that virtual spaces are becoming more and more centralized. I fear that our online rights might be at stake because we are delegating so much control and power to just a handful of companies.

Luckily the spirit of the Internet is open. My hope is that more people will develop even more open technologies, in a collaborative manner and with the possibility of replicating it in other environments. At the same time, I hope that more people will become more aware of the challenges facing the future of the Internet.

What do you think the future of the Internet looks like? Explore the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future to see how the Internet might transform our lives across the globe, then choose a path to help shape tomorrow.

Artificial Intelligence Human Rights Internet Governance Shaping the Internet's Future

Future Thinking: Getachew Engida on Digital Divides

Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. In April 2018, we interviewed two stakeholders – Getachew Engida, Deputy Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Augusto Mathurin, who created Virtuágora, an open source digital participation platform – to hear their different perspectives on the forces shaping the Internet.

Getachew Engida is the Deputy Director-General of UNESCO. He has spent the past twenty years leading and managing international organizations and advancing the cause of poverty eradication, peace-building, and sustainable development. He has worked extensively on rural and agricultural development, water and climate challenges, education, science, technology and innovation, intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity, communication and information with emphasis on freedom of expression, and the free flow information on and offline. (You can read Augusto Mathurin’s interview here).

The Internet Society: You have, in the past, stressed the role that education has played in your own life and can play in others’ lives. Do you see technology helping to promote literacy and education in all regions in the future?

Getachew EngidaEducation unleashes new opportunities and must be available to all. If it were not for educational opportunities, I certainly would not have been where I am today. Though coming from a humble and poor family, I was given the opportunity to go to public primary and secondary schools that also had feeding programs thanks to UN agencies. I benefitted from scholarships to undertake higher education that made a huge difference to my career progression.

Technology, indeed, is a great enabler and allows us to reach the marginalized and those left behind from quality education. But while connectivity is increasing at a rapid pace, educational material lags behind, particularly in mother tongues. Appropriate and relevant, quality education, combined with technology, will be a potent weapon to drastically improve access to education and eliminate illiteracy around the world.

How can we ensure that future generations are taught the right skills to flourish in future workplaces, which will demand a thorough command of digital skills?

No doubt, inclusive knowledge societies and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development cannot be achieved without an informed population and an information-literate youth. Digital skills constitute a crucial part of quality education and lifelong learning.

UNESCO believes in empowering  women and men, but particularly youth, by focusing specifically on what we call “Media and Information Literacy” (MIL). This includes human rights literacy, digital security skills, and cross-cultural competencies. These skills enable people to critically interpret their complex digital information environments and to constructively access and contribute information about matters like democracy, health, environment, education, and work.

As the media and communications landscape is complex and rapidly changing, we need to constantly update the substance of media and information literacy education to keep pace with technological development. The youth need, for example, to grapple with the attention economy, personal data and privacy, and how these and other developments impact them through algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Facing increasing concerns about the misuse of information and disinformation (‘fake news’), propaganda, hate speech, and violent extremism, we see an urgent need for a concerted effort from all stakeholders to empower societies with stronger media and information literacy competencies. In this way, the targets of malicious online endeavours will be able to detect, decipher and discredit attempts to manipulate their feelings, networks, and personal identities.

What role does the UN in general and UNESCO more specifically have to play in promoting and protecting human rights online? How does UNESCO navigate tensions between different interpretations of human rights online – e.g., first amendment fundamentalism in the US versus more balanced approaches in Europe?

One of the great achievements of the United Nations is the creation of a comprehensive body of human rights law—a universal and internationally protected code to which all nations can subscribe and all people can aspire. In the digital age, the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have constantly updated this human rights mandate by issuing a number of resolutions to promote human rights equally online and offline.

UNESCO, in turn, is the UN agency with a mandate to defend freedom of expression, instructed by its constitution to promote “the free flow of ideas by word and image.” UNESCO also recognizes the right to privacy underpins other rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, association, and belief. We work worldwide to promote freedom of expression and privacy both online and offline.

UNESCO has taken a lead to flag Internet freedom issues at a number of key conferences and events such as the upcoming RightsCon gatherings, the annual WSIS Forum, and the Internet Governance Forum. We also do the same at UNESCO World Press Freedom Day celebrations each year on May 3, and meetings to mark the International Day for Universal Access to Information, on 28 September every year. To provide member states and stakeholders with cutting-edge knowledge and policy advice, UNESCO has commissioned a number of pioneering policy studies, the Internet Freedom series, too. They shed light on issues such as protecting journalism sources in digital age, principles for governing the Internet, and the evolution of multistakeholder participation in Internet governance.

How do you see emerging technologies, such as IoT or AI, impacting sustainable development and the future of our world? As we promote connectivity, do we risk cultural and linguistic diversity?

AI could profoundly shape humanity’s access to information and knowledge, which will make it easier to produce, distribute, find and assess. This could allow humanity to concentrate on creative development rather than more mundane tasks. The implications for open educational resources, cultural diversity, and scientific progress could also be significant. In addition, AI could also provide new opportunities to understand the drivers of intercultural tension and other forms of conflict, providing the capacities to collect, analyze, and interpret vast quantities of data to better understand, and perhaps predict, how and when misunderstandings and conflict may arise. In turn, these can all contribute to democracy, peace and achieving the SDGs.

However, AI and automated processes, which are particularly powerful when fuelled by big data, also raise concerns for human rights, especially where freedom of expression and the right to privacy are concerned. Internet companies have begun to use AI in content moderation and in ranking orders for personalized search results and social media newsfeeds. Without human values and ethics being instilled from the start during the design stage, and without relevant human oversight, judgement, and due process, such practices can have a negative impact on human rights.

AI is already beginning to shape news production and dissemination and shifting the practice and value of journalists and journalism in the digital age. Internet and news media companies, especially whether they intersect, need to consciously reflect on the ambiguities of data mining and targeting, as well as Big Data business models for advertising in the attention economy.

There is therefore a crucial need to explore these issues in depth and to reflect on ways to harness Big Data and AI technologies in order to mitigate disadvantages and advance human rights and democracy, build inclusive knowledge societies, and achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Current societal mechanisms including moral and legal frameworks are not geared to effectively deal with such rapid developments.

What are your hopes for the future of the Internet? What are your fears?

I hope to see a free and open Internet which is accessed and governed by all, leaving no one behind and making the world a better place for future generations. To do this we have to continuously counter emerging divides, such as linguistic capacities of computer recognition of speech which is making great strides in English, for example, but which leaves many other languages on the periphery. We need a proportionate response to the problems on the Internet which does not  damage “the good” in countering “the bad.” We should expand and maintain connectivity as the default setting in the digital age, and do everything possible to avoid the increasing tendencies of complete Internet shutdowns in certain regions or places. We need better respect for personal data and privacy from both corporate and state actors who track our online data. We need strong journalism online to counter disinformation, and we need heightened media and information literacies for everybody.

My fear is that Internet as a double-edge sword: if not properly harnessed, it might end up being used to regress, rather than to advance, those classic values we cherish such as a private life, transparency, and public-interest journalism. Without dialogue amongst all stakeholders, we could see the Internet and related technologies being exploited to pose severe challenges to peace, security, and human rights. Such fears need to be offset by maintaining a sense of proportion whereby the good of the Internet significantly dwarfs the bad, and where we can increasingly utilise existing and emerging digital technologies to achieve the planet’s agreed development goals by 2030.

What do you think the future of the Internet looks like? Explore the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future to see how the Internet might transform our lives across the globe, then choose a path to help shape tomorrow.